Gospel Substitutes Part 6: Biblicism

Eds note: today, we post part 6 of our "Gospel Substitutes" series, covering the topic of Biblicism.  As always, our thanks goes to Dr. Tim Lane of CCEF.  You can read the first five parts of the series here, here, here, here and here. (Formalism, Activism, Mysticism, Legalism and Socialism).


Lately, I’ve been weary. I’ve been distracted. I haven’t been making time for devotions, and I’ve been more concerned with the work I’ll be doing after I graduate law school to advance my career than the work I do to advance the kingdom of God. I’ve come to a realization this is all because I’ve been neglecting a person and a book, and that person is John Piper and that book is Desiring God……..

……I’m joking, of course. Such a perspective is an exaggerated example of our sixth gospel substitute, i.e. Biblicism. Dr. Tim Lane describes Biblicism as “the gospel reduced to mastering biblical content and Christian theology.” This is perhaps the most subtle of all of the gospel substitutes we have covered so far. It’s sometimes very difficult to discern when our love of theology and educating ourselves as to the words and implications of the Bible is an outflow of our relationship with Jesus, or when it has replaced a personal pursuit of Jesus.

Marshall Segal said: “Theology…if it is cut off from rtuly knowing and enjoying God himself, can be a soothing, subtle, superficially spiritual god…[it] lulls us into a proud, intellectual, and purely cosmetic confidence and rest before God. Theology will kill you if it does not kindle a deep and abiding love for the God of the Bible, and if it does not inspire a desire for His glory, and not ultimately our own.”

A love of theology and of studying the Bible is essential in a believer’s life. But we can study theology for at least two different reasons; to grow in our understanding of and love for God, or to grow our own intellectual knowledge. One is a requirement of being a disciple; the other is a gospel substitute.

Segal also pointed out that without theology, we could not know God, literally or spiritually. There is a temptation to respond to the danger of “puffed-up knowledge” by acquiring a sort of “me and Jesus” attitude, pretending that we don’t need theology, or books written by smart people, or the church. We just need ourselves, Jesus and a Keith Green album and we are set. And of course, to some extent, that’s true. Only Jesus, only Jesus, only Jesus, we (rightly) cry. But there is something absurdly arrogant in presuming that our relationship with God would not be helped by learning from brilliant, godly men and women who have spent their lives studying particular aspects of the character of God for the benefit of the church.

Nevertheless, when our study of theological truth becomes the end-all, be-all aspect of our faith, we have misplaced the core message of the Gospel. It’s one thing to humbly admit that there are men and women who have things to teach us that will help us grow in sanctification and devotion. It’s another thing to pursue what others have said about Jesus more than we pursue Jesus.

As someone who loves theology, loves reading, and loves discussing aspects of biblical truth, I often have to remind myself that my relationship with Jesus is more important than mastering biblical content. Here are some questions I ask myself to search my own heart (even if none of the questions are meant to be dispositive)

  • Do I study theological books more than I read the Bible?

  • Do I get more excited talking about the doctrine of penal substitution conceptually than I do talking about the fact that Jesus died for me?

  • Am I consistently reading Paul’s epistles and inconsistently reading the Gospels?

  • Do I spend more time praying, worshipping and reading the Bible during my devotional time, or listening to Tim Keller podcasts?

  • Am I more likely to study God’s word if I know that I’m going to be discussing a particular aspect of theology with a friend in the near future?

Those are just some questions I ask myself; I hope they are helpful. I want to reiterate that a love of theology is a part of kingdom living. But it’s a part of kingdom living; it is not itself kingdom living. Our call as Christians is not to worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Bible. Our theology should not be for purpose of acquiring knowledge as an end unto itself, or to add to our intellect or ability to debate others on the finer points of eschatology; it’s merely to equip us to be able to more sincerely sing, “Give me Jesus, give me Jesus! You can have all this world; give me Jesus.”

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